Jane Powell, the bright-eyed, opera-voiced star of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals who sang with Howard Keel in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and danced with Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding ”, died. She was 92 years old.
Powell died Thursday at her home in Wilton, Connecticut, said longtime friend Susan Granger. Granger said Powell died of natural causes.
“Jane was the most wonderful friend,” said Granger. “She was frank, she was honest. You never asked Jane a question you didn’t want an absolutely honest answer to.”
Granger was a youngster when she met the then teenage Powell who was making her film debut in “Song of the Open Road” in 1944, directed by Granger’s father, S. Sylvan Simon.
She has performed most of her life, starting around age 5 as a radio singing prodigy in Portland, Oregon. On screen, she quickly transitioned from teenage roles to the lavish musical productions that were a Hollywood staple in the 20th century.
Her 1950 cast in “Royal Wedding” came by default. June Allyson was first announced as Astaire’s co-star, but pulled out when she got pregnant. Judy Garland was chosen but was withdrawn due to personal issues. Jane Powell was next.
“They must have given it to me,” she joked at the time. “Everyone is pregnant.” Also among the future stars of MGM: Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse and Jean Hagen.
Powell had just turned 21 when she got the part; Astaire was 50 years old. She was nervous because she lacked dance experience, but found him “very patient and understanding.” We got along well from the start. “
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” turned out to be a 1954 hit.
“The studio didn’t think they were going to do anything,” she recalls in 2000. “MGM thought ‘Brigadoon’ was going to be the big money maker that year. passed that way, we were the ones who went to Radio City Music Hall, which was always such a hit.
The famous New York venue was then a movie theater.
The audience was overwhelmed by the vigorous singing of Keel and Powell and especially by the gymnastic choreography of Michael Kidd. “Seven Brides” achieved classic status and spawned a Broadway television series and musical.
“Blonde and petite and pretty, Jane Powell had the right amount of guts and courage to play the woman who could tame seven lumberjacks,” John Kobal wrote in his book “Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals.”
After 13 years at MGM, however, Powell left the studio, believing she was going to be fired “because they weren’t going to do musicals anymore.”
“I thought I had a lot of studios to go to,” she said in 2000, “but I didn’t have any because nobody wanted to do musicals. It was very difficult and a shock for me. There is nothing worse than not being wanted.
She found a musical at RKO, “The Girl Most Likely”, a 1958 remake of “Tom, Dick and Harry”. Aside from a few minor films, his film career was over.
She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce in Portland, Oregon, in 1928. She started singing on local radio when she was little, and as she grew up her voice became a clear, high-pitched soprano.
When the Burce family planned a trip to Los Angeles, the radio station asked if Suzanne would appear on a network talent show there. The little girl with the 2 ½ octave voice elicited a thunderous applause with an air of “Carmen” and was quickly put under contract with MGM.
His first film was a loan to an independent producer for “Song of the Open Road”, a 1944 hodgepodge with WC Fields (at the end of his career) and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
The character’s name in “Song of the Open Road” was Jane Powell, and MGM decided that would be the name of their film.
She played teenage roles in films such as “Holiday in Mexico”, “Three Daring Daughters” and “A Date With Judy”. But she begged the studio bosses to be given adult roles and ultimately succeeded in “Royal Wedding”.
Frothy romances and musicals continued to dominate her career, including “Young, Rich and Pretty”, “Small Town Girl” and “Three Sailors and a Girl”.
After the end of his film career, musical theater offered a lot of work for a star of his fame and talent. She sang in dinner clubs, toured in shows such as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “I Do! I Do!” and replaced Debbie Reynolds in the Broadway series of “Irene”.
She has appeared on television frequently, notably as Judy Garland in a new version of “Meet Me in St. Louis”.
As she approached her 70s, Powell gave up her singing career. “I can’t hit the high marks, and I won’t be second-rate,” she explained in 2000. She moved on to the theater, appearing at the New York Theater in plays such as “Avow,” describing the mother of a single, pregnant daughter and a son who wanted to marry his male partner.
Powell’s first four marriages ended in divorce: with Geary Steffen (son Geary, daughter Suzanne), Patrick Nerney (daughter Lindsay), James Fitzgerald and David Parlor.
Powell met her fifth husband Dick Moore when he interviewed her for his book on child actors. As Dickie Moore he had been a well-known child actor in the 1930s and 1940s and gave Shirley Temple her first onscreen kiss in “Miss Annie Rooney” (1942). Moore, head of a public relations office in New York, and Powell married in 1988. He died in 2015.
Jane Powell’s survivors include her daughter, Lindsey Nerney, Granger said.